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Company of Proprietors of the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal: plans 1792-1881, general assembly book 1793-1804, special bond 1795, company minutes 1852.



Reference code


Administrative /‚Äč Biographical history

Surveyed in 1792 by Christopher Staveley and John Varley, the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal was a broad extenstion of the Leicester Navigation to Northampton via Market Harborough, although each line either side of Market Harborough was considered a separate undertaking. William Jessop was consulted and gave his approval. When the Act passed in April the following year, William Jessop was appointed supervising engineer above John Varley and Christopher Staveley, although the latter left shortly after construction began. The plans involved improving the River Soar from Leicester to Aylestone Bridge, then constructing a canal to Northampton with a branch to Market Harborough. The most notable engineering features were the four tunnels at Saddington, Foxton, Kelmarsh and Great Oxendon, between 286 yards and 1056 yards. By March 1795 the waterway was open as far as Kilby Bridge, but it was apparent that the cost had been grossly underestimated. There had also been two incidences of rebellion amongst the labourers, in which wage disputes seem to have played a part. Terminating at Market Harborough became an increasingly attractive suggestion. In 1797 the canal was only 6 miles from there, at Debdale Wharf just beyond the 880-yard Saddington Tunnel. The tunnel itself had been problematic as the assistant engineer William Fletcher had noticed that it was not straight. Subsequent examination revealed this to be the case and about 23 yards of one side needed to be dismantled. All work came to a halt in 1797. As an alternative, the company entered into an agreement regarding maintaining the Gumley-Market Harborough road that would be used instead of the unbuilt section of canal. The canal was 17 miles long, with 25 broad locks. A reservoir at Saddington fed the canal. The original intention had been to join up with the Grand Junction line to London, then just a proposal, at Northampton. James Barnes of the Grand Junction was asked to survey for a connection to the Grand Junction at Braunston, which he did in 1799 and 1802. Thomas Telford gave a second opinion and suggested a slightly different route that would need fewer than James Barnes' sixteen locks. In 1805 the company sought an Act to finish the line to Market Harborough with basin and buildings, also surveyed by James Barnes and completed in 1809, but did nothing about reaching Braunston. The Grand Junction Canal company took up the matter instead and organised the surveys. Being the only company to act meant that they were the only one to have its interests fully represented. A representative was sent to inform the Grand Junction Canal company that the Union fully supported them and relations between the two were good, notwithstanding a misunderstanding about the amount the Union had promised to subscribe. The Grand Union was to connect at Foxton with the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, the latter to be referred to as the Old Union Canal. The Grand Union Canal was completed in 1814 and trade on the Old Union Canal immediately improved. After 1809 when the extension was completed the tolls taken rose impressively until a decade later, when the overall increase was more hesitant. Then, three of the Union's committeeemen were appointed as chairman and members of the committee of the Leicester & Swannington Railway Company, opened in 1832.The two companies entered into a mutually beneficial alliance that had a similar impact on the canal's revenue as the Market Harborough extension had twenty years earlier. The railway opened up a new source of coal to the canal, with the further advantage that the railway company had built a short track to the wharf and were keeping prices reasonable. The canal's profits reached their pinnacle in 1837; from then on trade declined due to railway competition throughout the 1840s and 1850s. Chairman Charles Robinson retired in 1848. Drawbacks were given and in 1847 and 1849 the company began trading coal at Market Harborough and Kilby bridge respectively, and continued to do so until the 1860s and 1870s. The company continued to make a profit into the 1870s, but only just. In 1872 the Midland Railway bought land and property at West Bridge Wharf, Leicester. By then only half the income the Union received was from tolls and wharfage, the remainder came from rent and interest. The Grand and Old unions were discussing collaborating but neither were keen on amalgamation. By the 1880s the financial situation was becoming untenable. When the Grand Junction Canal company wrote to the two Union canals in 1886 seeking to improve traffic, the response was to offer the Grand Junction Canal the opportunity to buy them both. Fellows, Morton & Clayton Ltd had encouraged the Grand Junction Canal's initial correspondence and worked closely with the other three companies in assessing the potential of the canals and the improvements that would have to be made. The Old Union Canal maintained their canal to the best of their ability, making necessary repairs and removing a lock at Leicester in 1890. A sale was agreed in July 1893, an Act obtained and the Grand Junction Canal completed the purchase in September 1894. For further information on the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of the East Midlands'.

System of arrangement

It has not been possible to ascertain any original structure of record-keeping from the small number of records held for this company. The fonds has therefore been arranged in chronological order.

Associated material

[See also BW99 and BW58 for records of the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Union Canal during other periods of ownership]